Sports betting is wrong morally, culturally

Morality condemns dilution of household income in a game of chance

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One can never get one’s head around to just how much this nation likes to ape the West. Not all of us can carry off western outfits, but what the heck, it is cool. We may have the best natural coolers in our nimbu pani, jal jeera and lassi but colas are what we serve our guests to appear urbane and hep. Ayurveda is a system of medicine that is preventive and taps natural and seasonal ingredients to cure disease; our nation now touts more allopathic hospitals with their chemical drugs than Ayurvedic dispensaries. Our religious texts, Rig Veda onwards, deplore gambling. But since every other nation in the world has embraced it for the commerce, let us also look to legalise betting in sport.

Sport, to me, is an extension of our tribal roots. It is the purest form of one of our most atavistic survival instincts. It’s the fight in the quintessential fight or flight. Sport is the purest form of combat left; it’s merged with and reverberates to the thrum of nationalistic fervour. Even as India looks towards a more triumphant nationalist agenda under a government that promises to prop up a more aggressive foreign policy, do we dilute the fabric of nationalism by looking at teams that represent India as tools for gambling? I don’t think so.

The West has a different morality. It’s not my place to condemn or condole it; it is not for me to applaud or appreciate. Just that we, in India, have a different outlook towards morality. And, morality condemns dilution of household income in a game of chance. It condemns diffusion of meagre financial gains into a man’s propensity to try his luck. Betting on sport is largely a male pursuit—just like alcoholism is across the Indian hinterland. There is nothing wrong with having a drink or two, but alcoholics don’t stop at that. There may be nothing wrong in laying a wager or two on the outcome of a match, but what’s to stop compulsive gambling from morphing into another social evil?

I find the arguments in support of legalising sport laughable. To say that one needs to link Aadhaar card to bets and, therefore, contain the number may well be flawed logic. Is it possible to check me from placing multiple bets using the cards of my mother, father, uncle or a cousin?

The Indian cricket team, for instance, excites extreme passion. Everybody, and their auntie, have a firm conviction that India will win most times that the Men in Blue go out into field. Just like voting patterns in this country, which stem from emotional connects such as caste and religion, rooting for the home team is not grounded in reality—it is more about jingoism. How can betting choices be made logically? Most fans function in a universe of notions with imperfect knowledge about the abilities of their stars or of the team. Betting will largely be emotion-driven and not based on cold reason. As a nation, do we really need more emotional decisions to dictate the finances of a household of meagre means?

The Manusmriti, has its critics for its advocacy of the varna system. I have no quarrel with them. But few know that the text served as the basis for Hindu law under our colonial rulers. As such, it has also seeped into the laws that continue to govern us. The Manusmriti condemns gambling explicitly: “MS 9.221. Gambling and betting let the king exclude from his realm; those two vices cause the destruction of the kingdoms of princes. MS 9.222. Gambling and betting amount to open theft; the king shall always exert himself in suppressing both (of them).”

The Rig Veda too doesn’t mince words: “The gambler’s wife is left forlorn and wretched: the mother mourns the son, who wanders homeless. In constant fear, in debt, and seeking riches, he goes by night unto the home of others.”

There is also talk of the riches that may accrue to sport through revenue that may come from betting. I fear this is a chimera being paraded for the gullible. Great wealth can come from sport easily through tapping corporates looking to enhancing brand visibility. But for that, our sports federations would have to evolve a competition structure that is vibrant and connects with the masses. They have failed to do so. How do we then expect that the same lot will do a wonderful job once funds from betting start flowing in? I fear blaming lack of money for the state of affairs of our grass roots sport is a charade that inept sports administrators enact to hold onto to their jobs. I wager nothing will improve; just the fat cats of Indian sport will get fatter.

Betting on sport is morally, culturally and historically wrong. I hope in another quest to ape the West, we don’t herd on towards it.

Anurag Kashyap runs the NGO Shakti, which focusses on empowerment through social change

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